iPads in the ASD classroomSince its launch in 2010, the iPad has quickly become a favorite tool for educators. Of particular focus has been its use with students with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Although integrating iPads into a classroom with a large number of students can be challenging, using iPads with individuals with ASD is quite manageable. Advance planning is required to implement a successful strategy using iPads since every student with ASD has specific needs to be addressed.

The iPad does not replace therapy or formal ASD instruction, it enhances and supports it. This unique, innovative and powerful device can produce positive outcomes when used effectively. There are many academic and functional domain areas that can be addressed when using an iPad. These areas include, but are not limited to, improvement in scheduling, motivation systems, academic skills, communication, video modeling, data collection, and leisure activities.

Five steps to success

As the lead teacher for the Applied Behavior Analysis/Autism Program in Hoboken, I have worked with over 60 families as well as educated and trained thousands of parents, teachers and other professionals on this topic. Throughout these experiences, I have discovered a five-step process that is essential to effective use of an iPad for an individual with ASD.

Step 1: Identify a target skill(s). Be specific. Many teachers and parents attempt to address too many skills only to find the child doesn’t succeed with any of them. Focus on one skill at a time. When you have success with one, add another and so on.

Step 2: Evaluate. There are a few misconceptions about integrating the iPad into the daily routine of an individual with ASD. We often think that any iPad model will work, but that is not always the case. For example, choosing which iPad to use should be done with careful consideration of the target skill/objective. Select an iPad that will best fit your student’s needs. For example, if you plan on using many video models, photos, and audio files to teach a skill, you want a 64GB instead of a 16GB iPad.

Step 3: App selection. This step is very crucial. When determining which apps might be part of a successful ASD integration program, it’s best to look for the newer apps and cross reference older apps that have a history of updates and enhancements. I no longer read subjective reviews or "top 10 lists." Deciding which app to use is not as easy as simply downloading the app from a list. In fact, this method may be costly. Finding the most appropriate app is more complex. To combat confusion over what apps make the most sense for your student, I designed an App Selection Rubric (ASR). The ASR is composed of four areas:

  • Developer’s knowledge of ASD
  • Ratings
  • Ease of use
  • Functionality. 

Personally, I own over 2,500 apps. Of course I don’t use all of these, but I wanted to test them before using them with my students. While it is ideal to download free or “lite” versions of educational apps to determine their effectiveness, a sneak peek is often not good enough when integrating app usage into an ASD educational plan.

Step 4: Support. All developers are required to provide support when placing their product in the App Store. Unfortunately, the level of support varies from developer to developer. Most support offered by developers pertains to the overall function of the app. I have emailed many of them to discuss use of their apps for individuals with ASD. Developers who possess experience in the field of autism were able to answer my questions. Due to the level of individualization needed for each student, however, I couldn’t always get the help I needed. In addition to directly contacting developers, users should look for video tutorials and/or training manuals. If they are not available, ask the developer to create them for you. If they truly believe what they developed may help an individual with ASD, they should oblige your request.

Step 5: Training. Training is one of the most important aspects of using an iPad, yet it is often overlooked. To appropriately use an iPad with an ASD student, you should be proficient with the iPad. Apple Inc. offers training at their retail locations. If you decide to attend private sector training, make sure the trainer is proficient in Apple technology, education and autism. Teachers always have additional questions that relate to their students, so having a trainer who is knowledgeable in all areas is most beneficial.

Once you have learned how to use the iPad, you will need to decide whether specific training on the apps you have selected is required. Many teachers can learn to use multiple apps on their own, but some apps require additional hands-on training. Furthermore, training should also be provided for the individual with ASD on how to use the iPad and app.

Final words of advice

Many teachers use iPhones throughout their daily life to access the internet, check their email, watch videos, take photos, and much more. But these are only a fraction of the things you can do with an iPhone. And while you can also do these things on an iPad, there are differences between the two devices.

When I conduct trainings for teachers, I ask how many people know how to use an iPhone followed by how many know how to use an iPad. Many people respond that they know how to use the iPhone but have difficulty using the iPad, especially with their students.

Be sure to follow the steps I listed above, but don’t be afraid to take a risk. The App Store offers some very cool apps that allow teachers to be creative and develop materials/lessons very easily.

Don’t give up, and be sure to have fun with these devices because they will be found in the classroom of the future. As iPads become more available in schools, more children with ASD will have the opportunity to benefit from this innovative technology. Additional apps will be designed—apps that are more adaptable, customizable and easier to use. They will be more affordable and of better quality. A wider selection of accessories that are Bluetooth® enabled will be available as well as accessories for the classroom, such as fixed desktop stands for iPads. And, of course, newer versions of the device itself will make the integration process an evolutionary one.

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Mark MautoneMark Mautone has over 18 years experience in special education and is a lead teacher for the Hoboken Public School District in its Applied Behavior Analysis Program for children with autism. He is an Apple Certified Associate in iWorks Suite and has designed/developed ITPADD (iPhone/iPod Touch app) and Spectrum Tool Suite (iPad app, in development).

Mautone is the president of ITPADD, a start-up technology and educational consulting company that specializes in working with individuals with autism and developmental disabilities. Learn more at www.itpadd.com.

Contact Mautone at mark.mautone@hoboken.k12.nj.us or mark@itpadd.com. Follow him on Twitter @ITPADD.